Reading & Discussion: Jean Genet's "Un Captif Amoureux" (Prisoner of Love) with an Introduction by Ahdaf Soueif

Mon, March 30, 2009 7:00 pm at Alwan for the Arts

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A Dramatized Reading in Arabic, French and English with Footage Screening

Introduced by Ahdaf Soueif
Readers: Tala Hadid, Omar Khalifah and James Wintner
Free and Open to the Public

* * * * *

Despite his constant affirmation of treachery and betrayal in his literary work, Jean Genet's political commitments were pure and intransigent. His allegiance to revolutionary struggle where identities are in metamorphosis, whether these identities are "black" or "Palestinian" turned him into an intellectual married to agitated causes, a self-scrutinized intellectual who is not interested in going native. Prisoner of Love, Genet’s final ode, is a magisterial political reflection on many of the themes that his fiction suggested and explored.

In September 1982, Jean Genet (at the request of his Palestinian friend Leila Shahid) visited Beirut and found himself in the middle of the Israeli invasion of the city. He was one of the first foreigners to enter the Palestinian refugee camp of Chatila after the Christian Lebanese Phalange, with the compliance of the Israeli command, tortured and murdered hundreds of its inhabitants. There, pushing open doors wedged shut by dead bodies, Genet memorized the features, the position, the clothing, the wounds of each corpse till three soldiers from the Lebanese army drove him at gunpoint to their officer.

On the first page of Prisoner of Love, Genet writes: "Reading between the lines is a level art; reading between the words a precipitous one. If the reality of time spent among-not with-the Palestinians resided anywhere, it would survive between all the words that claim to give an account of it. They claim to give an account of it, but in fact it buries itself, slots itself exactly into the spaces, recorded there rather than in the words that serve only to blot it out. Another way of putting it: the space between the words contains more reality than does the time it takes to read them. Perhaps it's the same as the time, dense and real, enclosed between the characters in Hebrew."

Jean Genet (December 19, 1910 – April 15, 1986) was a prominent French novelist, playwright, poet, essayist, and political activist. Early in his life he was a vagabond and petty criminal, but later took to writing. Genet's mother was a young prostitute who raised him for the first year of his life before putting him up for adoption. While he received excellent grades in school, his childhood involved a series of attempts at running away and incidents of petty theft. For his misdemeanors, including repeated acts of vagrancy, he was sent at the age of 15 to Mettray Penal Colony where he was detained between September 2, 1926 and March 1, 1929. In The Miracle of the Rose (1946), he gives an account of this period of detention, which ended at the age of 18 when he joined the Foreign Legion. He was eventually given a dishonorable discharge on grounds of indecency and spent a period as a vagabond, petty thief and prostitute across Europe— experiences he recounts in The Thief's Journal (1949). After returning to Paris in 1937, Genet was in and out of prison through a series of arrests for theft, use of false papers, vagabondage, lewd acts and other offenses. In prison, Genet wrote his first poem, "Le condamné à mort," and the novel Our Lady of the Flowers (1944). In Paris, Genet sought out and introduced himself to Jean Cocteau, who was impressed by his writing. Cocteau used his contacts to get Genet's novel published, and in 1949, when Genet was threatened with a life sentence after ten convictions, Cocteau and other prominent figures including Jean-Paul Sartre and Pablo Picasso successfully petitioned the French President to have the sentence commuted.

By 1949 Genet had completed five novels, three plays and numerous poems. His explicit and often deliberately provocative portrayal of homosexuality and criminality was such that by the early 1950s his work was banned in the United States. Sartre wrote a long analysis of Genet's existential development entitled Saint Genet. Between 1955 and 1961 Genet wrote three more plays as well as an essay called "What Remains of a Rembrandt Torn Into Four Equal Pieces and Flushed Down the Toilet", on which hinged Jacques Derrida's analysis of Genet in his seminal work "Glas". 

From the late 1960s, starting with a homage to Daniel Cohn-Bendit after the events of May 1968, Genet became politically active. He participated in demonstrations drawing attention to the living conditions of immigrants in France. In 1970 the Black Panthers invited him to the USA where he stayed for three months giving lectures, attending the trial of their leader, Huey Newton, and publishing articles in their journals. Later the same year he spent six months in Palestinian refugee camps. Profoundly moved by his experiences in Jordan, Lebanon and the USA, Genet wrote a final lengthy memoir about his experiences, A Prisoner of Love, which would be published posthumously. Genet also supported Angela Davis and George Jackson, as well as Michel Foucault and Daniel Defert's Prison Information Group. He worked with Foucault and Sartre to protest police brutality against Algerians in Paris, a problem persisting since the Algerian War of Independence, when beaten bodies were to be found floating in the Seine. Genet offers a critical dramatization of what Aimé Césaire called negritude in his play The Blacks (1959), presenting a violent assertion of Black identity and anti-white virulence framed in terms of mask-wearing and roles adopted and discarded. His most overtly political play is The Screens (1964), an epic account of the Algerian war of independence. In September 1982 Genet was in Beirut when the massacres took place in the Palestinian camps of Sabra and Shatila. In response, Genet published "Quatre heures à Chatila" ("Four Hours in Shatila"), an account of his visit to Shatila after the event. In one of his rare public appearances during the later period of his life, at the invitation of Austrian philosopher Hans Köchler he read from his work during the inauguration of an exhibition on the massacre of Sabra and Shatila organized by the International Progress Organization in Vienna, Austria, on December 19, 1983.

Genet developed throat cancer and was found dead on April 15, 1986 in a hotel room in Paris. He is buried in the Spanish Cemetery in Larache, Morocco.

Ahdaf Soueif is known for the bestselling novel, The Map of Love, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 1999 and subsequently translated into more than 20 languages. She is also the author of the massive In the Eye of the Sun and the short story collections Aisha and Sandpiper – later amalgamated into I Think of You. A political and cultural commentator with a special interest in Palestine, she writes for various newspapers in the West and the Arab world. Her seminal article, “Under the Gun: A Palestinian Journey,” was originally published in The Guardian and then printed in Soueif’s 2004 collection of essays, Mezzaterra: Fragments from the Common Ground. Soueif has also translated Mourid Barghouti’s I Saw Ramallah from Arabic into English. Born in Egypt, Soueif hás a PhD in Linguistics from the U.K. and is the recipient of three honorary DLitts from British universities. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in the U.K., the Bogliasco Foundation in Italy and the Lannan Foundation in the United States. She is a member of the Arab Writer’s Union, the Egyptian Writers’ Union, PEN Egypt and PEN UK. In 2008 she founded the U.K. charity, Engaged Events, which initiated the annual Palestine International Festival of Literature (PALFEST). PALFEST 08 took place last May in Ramallah, Bethlehem and Jerusalem. PALFEST 09 will take place in May in Jerusalém, Ramallah, Jenin, Bethlehem and al-Khalil. Ms Soueif lives in Cairo and London. Her website is


Tala Hadid was born in London and trained as a painter. She made her first full-length film, Sacred Poet, while she was studying as an undergraduate at Brown University. The film, a portrait of Pier Paolo Pasolini, includes interviews with Laura Betti, Bernardo Bertolucci, Sergio Citti and Ninetto Davoli. The author of several short films, in 2001 she produced and directed a film in St Petersburg, Russia, with poets Genya Turovskaya and Vladimir Kucheriavkin. In 2005 Hadid received her MFA in Film Directing from Columbia, and completed her film, Tes Cheveux Noirs Ihsan. The film was awarded the 2005 Kodak/Cinecolor Prize and in June 2005 received a Student Academy Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It has won several prizes (including awards from the Global Film Initiative, the Milos Forman grant and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts). It screened at numerous Film Festivals around the world, including the New York Film Festival 2005, the Sundance Film Festival 2006 and the Fajr Film Festival in Tehran. In February of 2006 the film won the Panorama Best short Film Award at the Berlin Film Festival. Hadid’s work has also screened, among other venues, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington D.C, the Photographer’s Gallery in London, the Cinematheque de Tanger, L’Institut du Monde Arabe and the Cinematheque Française in Paris.

Omar Khalifah is a Palestinian PhD student at the Department of Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Cultures, Columbia University, focusing on modern Arabic Literature.

James Wintner is a lifelong New Yorker. He studied engineering as an undergraduate, and urban planning and architecture as a graduate student. He has been most recently a photo gallery director and continues to curate the and websites. His company,, provides online auction services to nonprofit organizations. During the massacres at Sabra and Chatila he was in the Arab world and experienced first hand the profound emotions caused by these events.

Last updated: 2009-03-26 03:40:03

Un Captif Amoureux (Arabic cover)
Un Captif Amoureux (Arabic cover)
Jean Genet
Jean Genet
Ahdaf Soueif
Ahdaf Soueif

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